Emily Dickinson’s Deathbed Fly

Okay, here is a second post on poems about small winged pests, written in honor of President Obama’s cool and cold-blooded killing of a fly.

When I was a child, I used to enjoy the poem about “the funny old lady who swallowed a fly.” It is one of those repetition poems, with a new element added each time through (like “The House that Jack Built” or “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) until it ends abruptly and comically:

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why, she swallowed a fly,
Funny old lady, I think she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider
That wiggled and wiggled and wiggled inside her
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed the fly,
Funny old lady, I think she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird,
How absurd, swallowed a bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider…

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat,
Imagine that, swallowed a cat…

There was an old lady who swallowed a dog,
She went the whole hog when she swallowed a dog…

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow,
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow…

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse,
She died, of course.

Here we have black humor for children, who enjoy seeing excess piled upon excess (and the progression set in motion by an unexplainable absurdity) until it all comes to end with thud. (Why “of course” with the horse? Why not the cow? Or the bird, for that matter?) It feels tragic to children when they don’t get their own way, and for a while the poem appears to be indulging the fantasy that there are no limits.

But part of the child knows there must be boundaries and finds an element of satisfaction in the woman’s death, which represents the return of the reality principle. The parent has had enough and reasserts control, and the child finds some comfort in this. Which is to say, the poem allows him to play with the idea of unbridled freedom and then submit to the realm of consequences and necessity.

So why does it all end with the horse? Because horse rhymes with “of course.”

Incidentally, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that a fairy tale that captures children’s voracious appetites is “Hansel and Gretel,” which at one point has the children eating a house. And then realizing, to their horror, where unbridled appetites could lead if their mother (the witch) also knew no limits.

Back to flies and another fly poem, one that is very strange in its own right. The author is Emily Dickinson:

I heard a fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

I can’t begin to do justice to this poem here so I’ll just offer a few comments. In this most momentous of times, with someone on her deathbed and everyone wrung out with emotion, a fly enters the scene. The fly is life in the presence of death, triviality in the presence of solemnity, noise in the presence of silence, maybe even Satan (the lord of the flies) in the presence of God. There’s almost a comic dimension to it. For the speaker of the poem and for the mourners in the room, all time has been reduced to a moment and all the world has been reduced to a fly.

So flies and fleas can function as perspective restorers. In the midst of courtship, Donne’s flea brings everything down to earthy sexuality. In the presence of death, Dickinson’s fly takes center stage. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the high ideals of British civilization are shown up by the flies buzzing around a pig’s carcass. In Gulliver’s Travels, the miniature Gulliver sees the pretentious elegance of court life undermined by the fly slime that he can see with his microscopic vision. And in the Oval Office, a fly captures the full attention of a man normally focused on two wars, a faltering economy, energy independence, the prospect of cataclysmic climate change, and universal health care.

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  1. Julia Bates
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Having just finished Norris’ book, she ends with the death of her husband and the acedia that seems to have weighted her down. The fly of daily existence. Sometimes it distracts her from her grief, sometimes it makes her unable to see to see. She loses faith and optomism. Buzz. Buzz.

  2. Julia Bates
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I’m sending today’s reading from Buechner
    A Room Called Remember, p. 180-181 by Frederick Buechner

    Power of Words
    If literature is a metaphor for the writer’s experience, a mirror in which that experience is at least partially reflected, it is at the same time a mirror in which the reader can also see his or her experience reflected in a new and potentially transforming way. This is what it is like to search for God in a world where cruelty and pain hide God, Dostoevski says—“How like a winter hath my absence been from thee”; how like seeing a poor woman in a dream with a staving child at her breast; how like Father Zossima kneeling down at the feet of Dmitri Karamazov because he sees that great suffering is in store for him and because he knows, as John Donne did, that suffering is holy. And you and I, his readers, come away from our reading with no more proof of the existence or nonexistence of God than we had before, with no particular moral or message to frame on the wall, but empowered by a new sense of the depths of love and pity and hope that is transmitted to us through Dostoevski’s powerful words.
    Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words; that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.

One Trackback

  1. By The Cosmic Meaning of Flushing Flies on June 18, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    […] Note: Two other posts on insect poems, written after the famous incident two years ago where Barack Obama killed a fly while being interviewed on national television, can be found here and here. […]


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